The Fleet Air Arm has been destined to repeat scenarios imposed upon it by others, several times. Before the First World War the nascent naval air service was absorbed into the Royal Flying Corps. The Royal Navy promptly started the Royal Naval Air Service, which became a powerful air force in its own right. It was even moving into strategic bombing with large Handley-Page bombers by 1917. In 1918, the RNAS was once again merged with the army’s air arm, with the formation of the Royal Air Force. So what had happened to the service by the lead-up to the Second World War, and how does it compare with the situation today?
1937: The Royal Navy had just regained operational control of the FAA from the RAF and was about to receive its first modern aircraft, after having spent the period since the First World War with a succession of capable but pedestrian biplanes. The capable but obsolescent torped0/bomber/reconnaissance (TBR) Swordfish, and the stop-gap Sea Gladiator fighters were overdue for replacement. Unfortunately, the new ‘modern’ aircraft were the Blackburn Skua and Roc, which were based on false premises (a combined fighter and dive bomber, the Skua, and a turret fighter, the Roc) and destined for a short service life.
The Skua at least would perform some useful service as a long range patrol aircraft, a bomber destroyer and a dive bomber, but was completely outclassed by Axis fighters. The Roc was essentially a failure. Both were too slow and insufficiently manouevrable, and were required to perform too many functions – second-line duties such as target-towing and training were included as well as the air fighting and attack roles. This meant they could do little well. Both were definitely better in the attack/dive bombing role than as fighters. At the time it was believed that fleet defence could be achieved entirely with massed anti-aircraft fire, so interceptor fighters were not required.
The single production run of each (190 Skuas and 136 Rocs) had already finished when the war began, so any thought of expansion or even replacements were out of the question, meaning the aircraft were on borrowed time. The same was true of the biplane Sea-Gladiator fighter, although the Swordfish was still in production and in fact a new production line was set up at Blackburn. The Swordfish would end up being manufactured until 1944, albeit long since replaced in its main role.
2012: The RN has no front line fixed-wing assets at all, for the first time in its history. The last naval fixed wing aircraft was the BAE Systems Harrier – the RN had used GR7 and GR9 models designed for the RAF, and prior to that, the Sea Harrier FA2. The Harriers had been the only front line naval fixed wing aircraft in the RN’s inventory since the Ark Royal (R09) was retired in 1978.
Rather like the Skua, the GR7/9 was not intended as a fighter and fleet defence came a distinct second to power projection and support of ground forces. The Harriers had been upgraded several times, and further capabilities were on the way such as the Brimstone air-to-ground missile. The aircraft were expected to last until 2018 when the new Joint Combat Aircraft (Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II) would be in service, even though the ‘force’ had been reduced to a mere two squadrons. However, the Harrier was retired early following the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010.
Ultimately, the limited number of aircraft and aircrews meant that the Harrier force could not realistically be shrunk. The RAF’s Tornado was too valuable and had the strength-in-depth to continue the potentially lengthy, attritional campaign in Afghanistan and pick up the baton when the RAF joined the fight in Libya. Unlike the Skua, the Harrier did not have to go toe-to-toe with modern fighters. Like the Skua, the Harrier force could not sustain the amount of fighting it would need to do over a protracted campaign.
1937: The Royal Navy had just regained control of its air arm from the RAF, which had effectively run it down over the preceding two decades. The Admiralty had precious little experience of running its own air operations and the first two years of war would highlight the lack of experience painfully. There was a fundamental lack of understanding about what aircraft could achieve, and what was needed to allow naval aircraft to fulfil their potential. Training was generic and left much to the frontline squadrons to complete. For example, at the beginning of WW2, pilots had to wait until they reached frontline squadrons before learning to dive-bomb. Some pilots found themselves doing their first dive-bombing practice while attempting to bomb the Scharnhorst in a heavily-defended Norwegian fjord…
2012: The FAA’s front line fixed-wing capability had once again been merged with that of the RAF, in the form of ‘Joint Force Harrier’ in 2000. The ‘force’ was part of RAF 1 Group, responsible for ‘combat air power’ and containing all the RAF’s fast jet units. Although the naval squadrons retained their identity, the whole structure was subordinate to RAF command. The two naval Squadrons, 800 and 801 (which had both operated Skuas early in WW2) became the Naval Strike Wing, before reverting to a single squadron under the 800 number plate in 2010. By the time Joint Force Harrier was scrapped in late 2010, it was made up of Nos 1 and 4 Squadron RAF and 800 Squadron FAA. Much of JFH’s work involved close air support (CAS) for ground forces, as did the Fleet Air Arm’s front line squadrons during the Norwegian Campaign of 1940. Despite some public complaints from senior army personnel, the Harrier was reportedly effective in the close air support role in Afghanistan.
Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat it… Too often in the FAA’s history, it has had to change between different commands, and invariably something has been lost in the transition. It remains to be seen how the Navy will re-adjust to fixed-wing operations after a gap of nearly a decade when the new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers and their Joint Combat Aircraft are finally available. Assuming both ships and aircraft arrive – neither a foregone conclusion – the FAA will have to make do with a very small cadre of modern aircraft, and an insufficient number of – admittedly brand new – ships. This was very much the situation in 1939, with the state of the art Illustrious carriers operating too few aircraft which were in any case largely outclassed.
The author’s book on the Blackburn Skua
See John Dell’s excellent Skua website for more info